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Epigenetics and How Our Decisions Affect Our DNA

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With the Genetics and Genomics 2016 virtual conference now on demand, we are extending the genetics conversation into this month with a new infographic. Epigenetics has been in the news quite a bit lately as researchers have been able to learn more about its process and influences. It turns out that epigenetics is an ever-changing process within our cells, causing more rapid modification within a generation. Unlike standard evolution, where small mutations can span generations before any actual variation takes place, an epigenetic change can affect a person within their lifetime.

Here are a few interesting facts about epigenetics and one cool infographic:

Epigenetics decides which genes are expressed and how much of that gene is expressed. Since every cell in a person has the same DNA, epigenetics control what cells become and how they behave. It is these non-direct changes in DNA sequence that influence a person’s physical traits and propensity for certain diseases.

The first human disease to be linked to epigenetics was cancer, in 1983. Researchers found that diseased tissue from patients with colorectal cancer had less DNA methylation than normal tissue from the same patients (Feinberg & Vogelstein, 1983). Because methylated genes are typically turned off, loss of DNA methylation can cause abnormally high gene activation by altering the arrangement of chromatin. On the other hand, too much methylation can undo the work of protective tumor suppressor genes.

Some commonly known diseases associated with epigenetic changes are:

  • Rett syndrome
  • Prader-Willi syndrome
  • Angelman syndrome
  • Beckwith–Wiedemann syndrome

Several health conditions can also be affected by epigenetic changes. Triggered by factors in the environment (such as the use of bisphenol A in bottles, cigarette smoking, alcohol use, and diets high or deficient in methyl-donating nutrients), epigenetic modifications that are associated with obesity, cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, and even allergies can be passed down from one generation to the next.

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